The executive director of the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board requested a leave of absence last week after a board member threatened him with a grand jury investigation unless he made efforts to keep death row inmates from seeking commutation hearings.
The confrontation centers on the high-profile case of Julius Jones, an Oklahoma City man on death row who has maintained his innocence, and is part of an ongoing clash between criminal justice reformers and long-time judges and prosecutors.
Board member Allen McCall told Executive Director Steven Bickley he would make accusations of unspecified criminal activity against him if he did not ask the state attorney general to weigh in on whether a request by Jones for a commutation hearing was valid, according to emails compiled in an internal memo that was obtained by The Frontier.
McCall, a former district court judge for Cotton and Comanche counties, also criticized Bickley for suggesting changes to the clemency process that would have to be approved by the board.
“Your continual attempts to inject your personal anti-death penalty opinions on the policies of this board are frightening,” McCall wrote Bickley on June 5.
“Who is pulling the strings that hold you up? Perhaps the multi-county grand jury can look into that. I am going to request to appear in front of the multi-county grand jury ASAP before you and your anti-death penalty buddies can cause any more pain and heartache to victim’s families.”
Two days later, McCall told Bickley he would hold off on making criminal accusations against him if he took the commutation issue to the attorney general.
“I will hold my nose and my tongue for a reasonable time in the spirit of cooperation, but rest assured that I am ready for battle at a moment’s notice,” McCall wrote in a June 7 email.
The Frontier reported on June 9 that the state’s pardon and parole board asked Attorney General Mike Hunter to look into the possible commutation of a death sentence.
Last week, Bickley requested a leave of absence as director because of what he called McCall’s “threats to criminalize my public service,” according to an internal memo.
Bickley did not respond to a request for comment.
McCall told The Frontier he would not comment because “I think the email I sent to Mr. Bickley is the subject of an executive session discussion.”
Convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death in 2002, Jones has continued to claim he had nothing to do with the murder of an Edmond businessman.
Citing racial bias and ineffective legal counsel, Jones has received growing attention, including from celebrities and athletes calling for his conviction to be overturned. His name has also been chanted by local protestors in recent weeks who have marched against systemic racism and police brutality.
When Jones applied for commutation last year, Bickley initially believed it was not allowed, which was the opinion of the outgoing attorney for the Pardon and Parole Board, according to an internal memo.
The belief was that death row inmates can only receive a clemency hearing in the final weeks before their scheduled execution, not a commutation hearing at an earlier date.
Bickley notified Gov. Kevin Stitt’s office because of the high profile nature of the Jones case, according to multiple sources. But Mark Burget, general counsel to the governor, told Bickley his interpretation of the rules led him to believe a commutation hearing should be scheduled for a death row inmate.
“Our office can find no authority that would permit the PPB to refuse to review and process such inmate’s commutation application,” Burget wrote on Nov. 8, 2019, in an email he shared with The Frontier.
The board’s current attorney, Kyle Count, who joined the agency this year, also said he believed Jones was eligible for a commutation hearing.
In emails sent this month, McCall criticized Bickley for seeking additional opinions on the commutation question and threatened him with criminal accusations if he did not seek an opinion from Attorney General Mike Hunter.
McCall told Bickley he was going to seek his termination and that he had “evidence of multiple violations of Oklahoma law by you and others,” although he never stated what evidence he had.
“You have slapped the faces of murder victims and their families for the last time on my watch,” McCall wrote in a June 5 email. “Good luck to you and may the best man prevail.”
Bickley shared McCall’s email with the rest of the board and Burget, general counsel to the governor. Burget wrote an email to McCall on June 5 saying he did not understand his complaints, including those about Bickley’s proposed policy changes on how clemency hearings are conducted.
“The allegations of ‘multiple violations of Oklahoma law’ is disturbing to say the least – especially considering that the policies proposed are just that – ‘proposed’ for discussion by the board,” Burget wrote, according to emails obtained by The Frontier.
In his response to Burget, McCall accused the governor’s office of meddling in the board’s affairs and accused Burget of “improperly influencing a public official.”
Burget denied McCall’s allegations during a Monday phone interview with The Frontier.
“I have no idea what he might be referring to,” Burget said.
On June 9, the Pardon and Parole Board voted unanimously to seek an opinion from the attorney general on whether death row inmates can receive a commutation hearing. As of Tuesday the Oklahoma Attorney General’s office had not yet received an official request from the board or any of its members, according to a spokesperson for the office.
The governor’s office said Stitt supports the board’s decision to seek an attorney general opinion but that “statements made by Judge McCall in his capacity as a member of the Pardon and Parole Board to Director Bickley are very concerning to the Governor,” according to an emailed statement to The Frontier.
Prosecutors push back
McCall’s criticism of Bickley comes at a time when district attorneys have sought the removal of two board members they believe have a conflict of interest because they work with released inmates and may be more sympathetic toward pardon and parole requests.
Shortly after he took office in 2019, Gov. Stitt made three appointments to the five-person Pardon and Parole Board, which has since set records for the number of approved commutations, action praised by many as a needed response for a state that has one of the nation’s highest incarceration rates.
But attempts to reduce the state’s prison population has met resistance from some prosecutors, including Laura Austin Thomas, the district attorney for Payne and Logan counties, who recently requested that the board remove Kelly Doyle and Adam Luck, two of Stitt’s appointments.
The Oklahoma District Attorneys Association, a private organization, recently filed open records requests with the Pardon and Parole Board seeking emails, text messages and social media messages from Doyle and Luck, according to multiple sources.
In a June 7 email, McCall accused Luck and Doyle of working on behalf of the “social justice reform crowd” and being “controlled by idiots like Steel (sic),” a reference to Kris Steele, the executive director of The Education and Employment Ministry (TEEM) who has been an advocate for sentencing reform.
Steele, who previously served on the board with McCall, said he was surprised by his accusation after he was read portions of the email by The Frontier.
“When it comes to making sure every Oklahoman has an opportunity to move beyond a troubled path and become a productive member of society I don’t think there is anything idiotic about that,” Steele said.
Over the past year the Pardon and Parole Board has approved nearly 3,000 commutation requests and approved hundreds for administrative parole, a more streamlined process recently put in place by the state Legislature.
Bickley was hired as executive director by the board in 2019, but last week he requested an extended leave “to allow time and transparency to resolve the issues that have been raised” by McCall, according to an internal memo.
The board met last week in executive session to discuss Bickley’s request but did not take any action.
Bickley remained the executive director as of Tuesday.